Investigator A is interviewing a scruffy suspect, named Marvin, in interview room number five. “So, you and your friend, Roger, attacked and robbed the man at the gas station. Why?”
Marvin replies, “Because he was a nigger. Niggers are all dope dealers, pimps, drive flashy cars, so I knew he had money.”
Simultaneously, in interview room number two, Investigator B interviews a disheveled Roger, whose T-shirt reads “Southern White Pride,” decorated with a rebel flag. “Why did you and Marvin attack and rob this particular man?”
“He had a nice car. I figured he was a dope dealer, had money.” He is asked again and says, that is the sole reason he selected the victim.
Marvin has committed a hate crime. Roger has not. What is the difference?
The hate crime law might seem easy to define, but it is a finely sharpened double-edged sword. To understand it is helpful to explain the history.
In 1968, the first federal hate crime bill was signed into law, enforced by the Department of Justice. This statute made it illegal, in part, “to use or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin” should the person participate in “a federally protected activity” including public education.
“If you don’t drop out of this school, my boys will make sure you won’t see tomorrow, kike!”
“If you don’t drop out of this school, my boys will make sure you won’t see tomorrow!”
Initially, there are apparent differences in the above threats. But taking a closer look (the obligations of the defense attorney, courts of law, and investigative teams), what is the intent behind the threat? Does it mean the “threat of death or harm”? Does it mean the “boys” will take some nonviolent preventative measures, such as a formal complaint based on a lie? (i.e., “I saw him cheating on a test.”) The derogatory slur added to the first threat may be perceived as part of the “threat” - or just name-calling.
“If you don’t drop out of this school, my boys will make sure you won’t see tomorrow because we hate kikes!” is illegal by the 1968 federal hate crime bill standards. Can it be challenged? Anything can be challenged.
The same year, Congress passed the Criminal Interference with Right to Fair Housing Act, which meant people could not be denied housing because of their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” (note sexual orientation or identification has yet to be identified in any statute thus far.) Again, this crime relies on proof: “use, or threaten to use, force to interfere with.” If a Hispanic family feels a landlord was refused them rental housing based on race, they must prove it – not an easy thing to do without the renter’s voicing the fact.
In 1996, the Church Arson Prevention Act was signed, i.e., to deface a synagogue or a “black church” was illegal, but only if proven that the arsonist’s intent was to “interfere with a person’s religious practice.” Law enforcement officers became trained in this hate crime, and the statue relied on these interviewing officers to prove this hate crime. If the offender says, for example, “I burned it to the ground because I hate Catholics” it can be classified as a hate crime. It is the officer’s duty to note it in the report, as with all reports; we rely on the officer’s training and dedication to do so.
In 2009 The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law.
“(A) federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury, or attempt to do so using a dangerous weapon, because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin … actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, only where the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.” Again, the perpetrator must voice, or somehow proof must be shown, of discrimination, and "only where." (italics author)
Sign posted above a bar in Birney, MO,
1941, refusing service to "Indians."
What do all of these Acts have in common? Intent. Proof in a court of law that the crime committed “to willfully interfere…to interfere with…willfully cause…” The burden of proof rests with the State’s office. A court relies on the language of the law, not emotion. The public can be outraged and sickened by discrimination (or perceived discrimination), but a court of law must follow the statutes: Was there “interference”? Did the act “willfully cause”? Did the perpetrator display proof of intent? Did the actions meet all criteria?
In the above example, Marvin expresses disdain for black people, which is why he selected his victim. Roger says he chose the victim because he believed the victim to be wealthy; he does not mention race despite harboring the same perceptions as Marvin. To the public, both men will be perpetrators of a hate crime. To the courts, Marvin will be charged. And this is one reason why hate crimes can cause such heartache, confusion, and disdain. The double-edged sword cuts deep.
National Archives. The Bill of Rights. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights/what-does-it-say
The United States Department of Justice. (March 7, 2019). Hate Crime Laws.
United States Courts. What Does Free Speech Mean? https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/what-does)
By Marion Post Wolcott - FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott.LOC LC-USF34-58491-D, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4635569
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